There’s an air of renewed optimism surrounding this Ireland team as they embark on the beginning of the Andy Farrell era with the visit of Scotland for the opening round of the 2020 Six Nations.
Of course, the outcome of the Six Nations which finishes in six weeks will determine whether this is just hot air but there is a definite sense of hope around the squad’s preparations.
This is due to the new coaching staff in place. Yes, Andy Farrell was previously defence coach under Joe Schmidt but his taking of the reins seems to have reinvigorated the players.
They are also working under Mike Catt as attack coach, a role which Schmidt had a major say in during his six-year tenure.
There is also change in the captaincy with Johnny Sexton now taking up that mantle after the retirement of Rory Best. The 2018 World Player of the Year, speaking to the media on Thursday at the IRFU High-Performance Centre in Abbotstown alongside Catt, admits that the environment feels new and that the players are thoroughly enjoying the new approach.
“It feels new,” Sexton said.
“Obviously, with the new coaches, the way we’ve set the week is totally different. In terms of how we run things is totally different. So, yeah, it’s been new, it’s been fresh and it’s been good. The fresh faces have come in and given us a lot of energy and brought a real…energy is really the right word [to describe the group].”
“It’s been brilliant. It’s always great when you get coaches of good calibre in, a brilliant ex-player [Mike Catt] that has been there and done it. I’m always keen to keep learning like all the players are. It’s great to have a guy that coached against us. You can sort of say, ‘What were you saying last year when you were playing against us in Rome?’
“We can pick his brain as well. It’s always great to get fresh voices. I just think it gives you that little bit extra, and you have to prove yourself all over again.”
One of the main messages coming from the newly assembled coaching ticket in the build-up to the Six Nations is that of giving the players more control and this is reflected in what Catt told the media on Thursday afternoon.
“I think it’s been a common theme all week,” Catt began.
“We’re just trying to create an environment where players can be themselves, go out and express themselves like they do for their provinces, and I think as a group of coaches we’ve to jump on the back of that as well.
“Let the players do what they’re good at, give them the freedom to do that. It’s down to the relationships we have with the players, and build that trust and letting them do what they’re good at.”
What impact will Mike Catt have on Ireland's attack?
We spoke to the man who facilitated the beginning of Catt's coaching career to get an idea.
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Sexton has experience of captaining Leinster but with Ireland, this is relatively new territory with just one game in green under his belt as captain coming in the win over Russia during the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
The 34-year-old admits that his preparations are a lot different this time around in his new role and although he admits that the build-up has been good, he fires a warning shot that it counts for nothing unless Ireland can produce the goods on Saturday against Scotland.
“It’s definitely been a different build-up for me. There’s a lot of extra things that go with being the captain but I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly. Lots of extra meetings, lots of prep the way Andy [Farrell] wants us to drive the group. Very player-driven with clear direction. It has been a little bit of extra work but I’ve enjoyed it.
“I think all the other guys in the leadership group have enjoyed it. We’ve built nicely up to this point but the thing that we can learn from the World Cup is that it counts for nothing really. When Saturday comes you can have a brilliant week’s prep with a very special camp and it doesn’t guarantee anything.”